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The Mental Game Of Water Polo

Make Your Mind Your Best Weapon

Bill Cole, MS, MA

I've been the mental game coach to dozens of top national water polo players over the years. I've also been mental coach to many swimmers and divers, ranging from high school, state, national, international to the Olympic level.

One key difference between an average water polo player and a top player is their ability to focus their mind under pressure. For example, note how this world-class golfer describes his ability to focus during a tournament. He was able to consistently stay in the moment in a very big event. What he says applies directly to water polo. You need to keep your mind in the present, not let it slip back to the past, or into the future.

"I think from a mental standpoint I was as good as I've ever been. I never let myself get ahead of myself. I never thought about what would happen if I won, what comes with it. I wanted to execute every shot. I wanted to stay in the moment. I wanted to stay within myself. I knew I was playing good going in, but I've been playing good going into a lot of tournaments before and haven't had the results I'd like. I was proud of myself to stay in it, to slow down a little bit, to slow my thinking down and really focus on what I was doing and not let my mind wander at all."
Gary Woodland, winner of the 2019 US Open Golf Championships

How about you? How often are you able to practice and play with your mind in the present?
Here are five mental strategies that will help you build and maintain a laser- focused mind so you can boost your confidence.

  1. Confidence Is Over-Rated: I know this sounds surprising, but it's true. At the upper reaches of sport, pressure and nerves are always there. I've been fortunate to have been a mental coach during two Olympics and with many Team USA athletes. Very few athletes at that level see their sport as "fun and giggles". They see it far more as a matter of serious achievement, status, self-identity, and personal satisfaction. So at those levels I encourage joy of achievement over fun, and teach them mental toughness, which is the ability to be comfortable, while being uncomfortable. This is the ability to be able to compete, yet while still at times being somewhat nervous.

    Plenty of athletes are quite afraid when they compete, but they succeed anyhow. Absence of fear is not required to succeed. It's nice, but not necessary. In fact trying to be fear-free causes more pressure and almost always leads to choking. Many, many athletes win when they are not all that confident. Here are two famous golfers describing this common phenomena:

    "We all choke, and the man who says he doesn’t choke is lying like hell. We all leak oil. I had a three-foot putt for $30,000. I made the putt, but my knuckles were white, and do you know how hard I have to squeeze the putter to get my knuckles white?
    Lee Trevino, with 89 professional golf wins, two US Opens, two British Opens and one PGA Championship.

    "Man, I couldn’t even breathe. I couldn’t smile because my lips were stuck to my teeth."
    JoAnne Carner, with 43 victories on the LPGA Tour, and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. This quote describes the win that put her into the LPGA Hall Of Fame.

  2. Avoid Task Saturation:This is a United States Air Force term that pilots use. Task saturation means you have mental overload. In a water polo match, it can be all too easy to over-think. And over-thinking is the number one mental roadblock athletes fall victim to. You think about your strategy, the opponent's strategy, your technique, the score, the momentum, the outcome and all else. Your mind wanders all over and escalates into overload mode. To prevent that, take time between plays to clear your mind. Follow your routines and rituals.

  3. Be Proud Of Your Accomplishments: No one can GIVE you confidence. You have to earn it. But when someone gives you a compliment, don't deflect it. External validation is part of becoming confident. What can you be proud of? Your hard work that few people are willing to do, or are able to do. The guts you have to put yourself on the line in a contest, to participate in a zero-sum game, where to win, the other person must lose. Being rated or ranked at the level you have achieved. What percentage of people who EVER play your sport even get ranked at all? All of these are accomplishments that should make you proud.

  4. Use A Go-To To Achieve Quiet Eye: Quieting your mind is the number one best way to get in the zone. Here's how to do that. Pre-contest, sit quietly for one minute or so as you look at an object in front of you. Keep your eyes relaxed, but fixed on this object. Breath deeply in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Relax your lower jaw and allow your mouth to remain slightly open. Within seconds, your mind will begin to become calm, to clear out, and your thinking will decrease. This is called quiet eye, leading to quiet mind, the best entry point to the zone. The visual object is called a "Go-To" and you can also use this for a few seconds anytime in dead time periods of the contest to regain quiet eye.

  5. Use A Mantra To Block Out Unwanted Thoughts: Every athlete has some negative or distracting thoughts or images that come into their head. That's normal. But you want to eventually block them out. Here's how. Choose a word or phrase that symbolizes how you want to feel when you compete. This may be something like "present", "clear", "in the now", "focused", "right here, right now", or just simply "now". This becomes your mantra, a word or phrase you repeat in your mind both before the contest and during dead time periods in the contest. Let's say your word is "now". It would go like this:  In your mind or under your breath, say the word "now" ...(pausing)... "now"... (pausing)... "now" ...(pausing)...etc. After just a few seconds your mind will have nothing in it except for the word "now" and your mind will be quiet and calm. However, don't use this when the ball is in play. You'll distract yourself.

Now you can see how these mental strategies can help you clear your mind, block out unwanted thoughts, and build your confidence. If you know what to do, that gives you confidence. That's called confidence through competence. If you know what you're doing, what's the problem? There IS no problem, because you have a plan and you have trust in your mental skills. The combination of having a clear mind, the ability to be comfortable while being uncomfortable, and deep self-confidence is an unbeatable formula for success. Take that into your contests and you'll come out a winner.

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS, MA 2001-2020 All rights reserved.

This article covers only one small part of the mental game. A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal, concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation training, momentum training, psych-out proofing and media training.

For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 65-item sport psychology assessment tool you can score right on the spot, visit This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first step to help you get the big picture about your mental game.

Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports. He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at

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